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Shindara passed by the last of his sleeping companions and followed the darkling into the woods. The warmth and safety of the camp receded as dark boughs closed in around him.

A few Shintō shrines dedicated to the gods were scattered along the path, half-hidden by the snow. He reached out and touched one of the forgotten shrines for good luck. As they wound through the forest, they encountered a path that split off in two different directions. One led to the left under a grove of peach trees while the right path led into the endless night gloom.

“Which way?”

Without answering, Hrioshango crept toward the left path under the trees.

Shindara almost asked about the other way, but he quickly changed his mind. Instead, another question came to his mind that he had been yearning to ask.

“Have you ever been afraid of death?”

Hrioshango shambled to a slow stop.

“Yes and no. It’s probably no surprise that my fears are different from yours. I’ve seen enough pain, horror, and evil to fill several lifetimes. You’re afraid to die. I’m afraid to continue living.” He turned a sly smile to Shindara. “But fear is just the moment before the sun fades, isn’t it? When the shadows hold you tight.”

Shindara gawked at him in disbelief. Those were words he never shared with Hrioshango, yet he took them right out of his mouth—with a few flowery additions of his own. After all, he once shared those words with Mikoto many moons ago on the beaches of Owari.

With a shrug, Hrioshango added, “I guess you could say that moment is almost here.”

They continued onward as Shindara pondered his answer. He knew better than anyone about the fragility of life and the suffering of existence. When he was a much younger scribe, he viewed death as the greatest of teachers and an inevitable path that all must take. Death was the liberator that would usher him into the next life and one step closer to Enlightenment. Those concepts were shattered when he met Aya.

Suddenly, he couldn’t imagine leaving the world behind. Aya became the breath of air that he couldn’t live without. He knew he would always want her and he promised to love her even more tomorrow… but her tomorrow never came. If Aya was still here, she would know exactly what to say to soothe him. Instead, Hrioshango’s voice jarred against the silence.

“We’re getting close. Can you hear it?”

“I hear nothing.”

“The hissing of the snakes, the chittering of the centipedes, all creatures associated with the Yomi. They whisper their strange songs to the darkness. You’ll hear them soon enough.”

The unlikely pair stepped through the thickets and into a moon-cast glen. Shindara’s eyes swept across the snow and ice until he spotted a massive boulder. He stopped mid-step as a feeling like no other overwhelmed him. He could feel the darkness roiling beneath that rock, salivating and begging to be let free.

“At last,” Hrioshango sighed as he descended into the small valley.

“Was the entrance always sealed?” Shindara asked.

“Not always. It’s been thousands of years since the way was shut. It was meant to keep something from getting out.”

Without warning, Hrioshango lifted his hand and curled his fingers in the shape of a dying spider. The boulder shifted and Shindara braced himself. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck as the rock tumbled away. Hidden beneath the boulder was a great pit, a hole charred into the existence of the world. As he peered into the abyss, he could finally hear it. The snakes slithering in the grass, the centipedes crawling under damp logs, and the crows lamenting from the trees.

The harbingers of the Yomi seemed everywhere at once as the pit beckoned him. What kind of world existed where the night was eternal? What creatures or despondent souls lurked on the other side?

As he considered the possibilities, a faint voice piped up from his side.

“If it’s any comfort, I’m here for you… as your friend.”

Shindara turned to Hrioshango, where the darkling managed a weak smile.

“Thank you. And yes, it is comforting. I’m glad I can count on someone like you.”

The darkling nodded and swept out his hand toward the pit.

With a quiver in his heart, Shindara took one step forward and prayed that it wouldn’t be his last.

Fog crawled across the fields as the sun was plunged into shadow. Shindara fell to his knees among the mud and rain-soaked grass. He clutched his arm as something more insidious than weakness stirred inside him. Betrayal. He gasped for breath as the agony of a dozen wounds exploded beneath his armor. One sword strike after another had splintered his breastplate until nothing short of death awaited him.

He faced countless adversaries since he wandered through Japan’s war-torn countryside, but nothing compared to this foe. In spite of the odds, he took comfort in the supernatural weapon gripped in his hand. The Obsidian Blade smoldered at his touch, always warning him when evil was drawing near. Shindara just wished he was fighting anyone else… not him. Shuddering from the pain, he lifted his eyes and saw the creature named Hrioshango.

Shindara couldn’t remember how he ended up crossing blades with his former ally. Hrioshango was only half the size of a man, but he was ten times the threat. He was a yokai, a demon that gleefully meddled with forbidden magic, charms, and curses. The creature flashed a mocking smile as he approached.

“Don’t be afraid of death, my friend. It was only a matter of time.”

“We aren’t friends,” Shindara snarled as a chill ran down his spine.

“That wasn’t always the case. Once you saved my life and trusted me to save yours in return.”

Shindara fumbled with the Obsidian Blade as he tried to focus on anything other than the pain.

“And look at where that’s left me. Sparing your life has cost me everything. I should have let you die!”

With a blistering sigh, the demon wiped the blood off his sword. Halfway through the motion, he caught the reflection of his face on the steel. The guilt and sadness mirrored in his eyes startled him and he quickly looked away.

“I’m sorry, Shindara. Honestly, I’m a little surprised that I feel regret about this. I will always think of you as my friend, which is why I take no pleasure in killing you, but it must be done. For my sake.”

With that dark admission, his arm recoiled and lunged like a snake. Shindara shouldn’t have been capable of evading the strike--and he didn’t. With reflexes born of desperation, he threw up an arm to block the sword. He screamed as half of his arm was lopped off in a cruel blow. Fortunately, it hadn’t been his weapon arm.

Hrioshango jerked forward as he felt warmth soaking through his robes. Trembling from head to toe, he looked down at the Obsidian Blade embedded in his chest.

Almost immediately, Shindara released the sword, horrified by what he’d done. The darkling, on the other hand, stared at him as if he was impressed by his deception. He never would have expected a pathetic human to best him.

A grieving Shindara bowed his head because he didn’t cherish this victory. Despite the rage and countless betrayals, he mourned the creature suddenly dying before him. Hrioshango had been his friend, if only for a short time. He promised to save Shindara’s soul from a curse, no matter where their travels might take them.

The man crawled closer as the yokai struggled with his last breaths. He had never seen such fear in Hrioshango’s eyes before, not even when he was surrounded by bandits or rogue samurai. Hrioshango gasped and reached out with his gnarled claws. Without thinking, Shindara took his hand and held it tight, not about to let him die alone. Foe or not, Shindara would stay by his side in his final, vulnerable moments--for the sake of who Hrioshango used to be. With a choked cry, he looked down at the sword stained in his friend’s blood. If only there had been another way.

* * *

Shindara was jerked from his nightmares as a voice called out to him.

“Wake up, my friend! We’re almost there!”

Clutching his chest, Shindara staggered to his feet. The earth felt unsteady beneath him, but at least he wasn’t lying in blood-soaked fields. Through sleep-lidded eyes, he saw a veil of green and emerald hues hidden beneath the frost.

A thick forest was rising from beyond great curtains of mist. A pathway sloped under a web of tree branches, stretching past several shrines dedicated to the Shinto spirits. Izumo Province was a cradle of folklore and mythical stories, which made it precisely the kind of place that he was seeking.

His eyes swept across half-frozen streams and glens freshly blanketed under snow. The beauty inherent to nature never failed to soothe his soul. Perhaps a less soothing sight was that of Hachi, the bandit who startled him out of his sleep.

Hachi was a gangly man with limbs nearly as long and sinewy as the sword he carried. His goat-like beard was always unkempt and his eyes were never without a crazed gleam. Apparently, the wintry chill didn’t bother him this morning either because he was wearing even less armor than he did the day before. The shock of seeing the forest of hair on Hachi’s bare chest was one that made Shindara never want to open his eyes again.

“Almost where…?”

Another voice rasped out a reply.

“One step closer to the Yomi. The Hollow Land.” Shindara’s heart withered at the sound of that voice. He turned to his right and spotted the yokai also known as Hrioshango.

He was a darkling, a goblin-like creature with two horns and skin as green as the ancient forest. He draped himself in tattered robes and wore a wide-brimmed, conical hat. He squinted his eyes at Shindara before they drifted to the weapon at his waist. His lips thinned in a scowl and he abruptly turned away. The chaos magician had always been nervous around the Obsidian Blade, but Shindara sensed something deeper this time. Perhaps Hrioshango was more frightened of the wielder than the weapon itself.

“I thought it would take several more days to locate the entrance,” Shindara said.

“Not with me as your guide. The way inside lies just beyond those trees. We should reach the unclean land by nightfall and put an end to this curse of yours.”

Shindara nodded. Despite the fears weighing on him, he felt indebted to the yokai. Were it not for the strange creature, he would be fading into the underworld with little hope of salvation. It seemed like ages since the curse first took hold of his soul. He could trace its origins to the siege of Nara, where his desperate actions cost him nearly everything.

No one could say exactly how the assault began or how many needlessly died, but Shindara would never forget the events of that night. He remembered waking to the sound of temple bells as samurai from the Taira clan descended on the city with blades and fire.

They focused their rage on the monasteries and the warrior monks sheltered inside. Despite their numbers and a well-devised strategy, they were no match for the Taira. They were slaughtered by the hundreds, if not thousands.

As their defenses crumbled, Shindara searched the burning temple for his wife. Nothing mattered more to him than saving the life of his precious Aya. If he had been a few moments sooner, he might have reached her in time.

Instead, a stray arrow had lodged itself in Aya’s heart. With her last breaths, her life was snuffed out--and so, too, was the life of their unborn child. A man of faith would have taken comfort in the thought that his loved ones were beyond the reach of war--and a better man would have known better than to tamper with dark magic to restore what was lost.

In a moment of madness, Shindara had enacted a ritual to resurrect Aya and his child. Anything but triumph awaited him in the end. The dark realm of the Yomi answered his arrogant attempt to undo death. He was cursed for his meddling in the worst way possible. The darkness of the Yomi entered his soul and began to kill him from within. His death was certain, but what awaited him in the end?

Would he remain trapped in the Yomi for eternity? Or would his soul cease to exist as if he were never born?

The first pang of panic exploded through his heart. He reached for the silver flask dangling from a chain around his neck, and as soon as his fingers touched it, his fear washed away. He lowered his head and pondered the treasure kept inside. The ashes of his wife were safely held within, always close to his heart. He promised to scatter Aya’s ashes until her spirit found peace on the other side, wherever she might be.

Shindara lay beside Aya.

He ran his fingers through her perfumed hair and marveled at the softness of her skin. He kissed her cheek and let his hand wander still, dedicated to finding every curve on her body. Shindara rested his hands across her growing belly.

“I wonder if we’ll have a girl,” he whispered, unable to hide the excitement in his voice.

“Most men would want a son, but not you.”

“I want her to be just like you.”

Shindara held his wife close and imagined their child waiting to be born. A piece of him and a piece of her would live in this baby.

“I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see her grow into the woman she was meant to be,” Aya said, gazing off into space. “If we had a daughter, what would you teach her about life?”

Shindara opened and closed his mouth several times but no words came out at first.

“I would try to teach her about compassion and forgiveness… two things that I’ve struggled with. I don’t want her to go through life as angry as I was, always looking over my shoulder.” He caught the amused grin on Aya’s face and chuckled. “Well, don’t you look surprised.”

“You aren’t exactly High Priest Kobo.”

“I admit, I wasn’t the most compassionate man before I joined the monks. I hardly knew what my purpose was. I was lost and always angry.”

“Why were you so angry and unforgiving?”

Shindara looked down at his wife’s small hands as they wrapped around his. He struggled to recall the memories that he repressed under the foundation of his new life. At most, he only thought of them when he laid down to sleep.

“Before I came to Nara, I lived in a poor mountain village. My father and mother worked as butchers. As their only child, I was deemed untouchable and tormented by the other boys. Maybe it’s no surprise that they treated me like a demon. When I came of age, I vowed to leave and go somewhere where no one would know my name. I found my way to Nara and I was instantly drawn to the temples. Perhaps I saw them as a means of cleansing myself.”

Shindara almost couldn’t meet her eyes as he remembered his journey from an unwanted child to a scribe.

“I’d been told all my life that I carried the taint of death because of my parents. I saw the quiet halls of Tōdai-ji as the answer. I didn’t want to become a monk, but I wanted to study within those golden halls. High Priest Kobo agreed to take me in as a scribe. But I still haven’t learned to let go of my anger yet. It’s always lurking there, try as I might to hide it.”

“You’ll find a way, Shindara.”

“Thank you… now it’s your turn. Tell me, Aya, what would you teach our daughter?”

Aya looked meaningfully at the child growing in her belly.

“I would teach our daughter not to make the same mistakes as me. Sometimes I worry that I’ve wasted so much of my life, trying to figure out my purpose and what I should be doing while I’m still alive. I’m afraid I’ve accomplished nothing.”

“What mistakes? You’ve accomplished so much more than you’ll ever know. Have you already forgotten the way you’ve touched countless lives? And have you forgotten about what you’ve done to change mine?”

Aya chuckled between her tears.

“That doesn’t sound like Buddhist doctrine, looking at life in terms of human connections. Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to sever your ties from humanity?”

“I’m only a scribe. And I would never sever myself from you, no matter what the gods demand.”

She cupped Shindara’s face between her hands.

“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered.

“If that’s the case, then I don’t deserve you either. And despite the odds, we somehow found each other in this strange life. I know you deserve all the love and happiness that the world can offer you, and we will have it together with our child.”

She nodded but her mind remained elsewhere.

“I don’t believe in regrets but there is one thing I wish I could change. I wish we’d met each other sooner, Shindara. I wish I could’ve met you when I was a little girl running through the fields of Owari. I could have shown you so much of the world and we could have enjoyed so many adventures together. Something tells me you could have restored the hope I lost as a child. And I think maybe I could have healed the anger and pain buried deep inside you. But most of all, we would have taught each other everything we know about love.”

They reached for each other simultaneously, taking shelter in one another’s arms.

“You make it sound as if you’re leaving me. This life isn’t over yet, Aya. We have the rest of our lives to spend together and teach each other how to love.”

“We don’t have any control over when we leave. When my time comes, you’ll be helpless to stop it. Life is a circle she spins on her own. Everything comes and goes for a reason and that includes me. You might not be able to see it yet, but one day you will.”

Shindara’s loving embrace changed in a matter of seconds. As he drank in her words, he clung to her for fear of being abandoned. Shindara buried his face in her hair as her fingers entwined with his.

“Aya, don’t leave me behind,” he whispered. “Stay with me forever.”

She held him tighter to reassure him. He sighed at her touch and the smell of her skin. In that moment, he felt safer than he had ever known in his life because she was beside him. Maybe eternity did exist after all. He held his breath as she leaned her lips close to his ear.

“My dear Shindara. As long as you see the stars in the sky or see the swans in the winter, I will always be with you. I will never leave you.”

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